J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Life: It’s Out There

Now that NASA is not so temporarily out of the manned space flight business, we have to hitch a ride with the Russians if we want to visit the International Space Station (ISS) that we helped build. Perhaps we should just leave it to them, if it really is the veritable playground for hostile extraterrestrials this film suggests. The good news is scientists have confirmed the existence of an alien life-form, but the bad news is it will inevitably start killing everyone in Daniel Espinosa’s Life (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Due to technical malfunctions, the ISS crew nearly fails to retrieve the fateful sample from their Mars probe, which would have ended the film prematurely but prolonged the characters’ lives. Naturally, once they start analyzing the sample, they find some kind of alien entity within. Nicknamed “Calvin” by driven lead researcher Hugh Derry, the creature starts out as an amoeba like cellular organism, but soon grows into a hissing, slithery alien not unlike the one from a certain 1979 science fiction-horror film we could mention. For a while, Calvin appears to go into hibernation, but it rouses in a foul mood when Derry gives it a series of electro-shocks. What a super idea that turns out to be.

Before you can say “in space nobody can hear you scream,” Calvin starts killing off crew-members one-by-one. He has a rather nasty technique of invading the body through open orifices and then exploding outward—again not wildly dissimilar from the Ridley Scott classic (it truly casts a giant shadow over Espinosa’s entire film).

So yeah, it is a heck of a lot like Alien, but not as scary. However, what really works here is the ISS setting and easy-going camaraderie of the crew. Espinosa and production designer Nigel Phelps really give viewers a sense of what it is like to live and work on the ISS. We feel like we understand exactly how the station operates, thanks to some surprisingly tense duct-closing sequences. Furthermore, Life arguably has some of the best weightlessness scenes rendered to-date on film. Screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick also differentiate the crew-members’ personalities much more than the typical “bug hunt” movie. Yet, those merits make it even more disappointing when the film stops trying to be original and resigns itself to ripping off Alien during the third act.

Don’t get too attached to anyone, but while he is around, Ryan Reynolds is jolly good fun to watch as Rory Adams, the ISS’s cocky space cowboy. Ariyon Bakare and Hiroyuki Sanada add tragic heft as Derry and Sho Kendo, respectively. Although Olga (Twilight Portrait) Dihovichnaya’s Russian Captain Golovkina is more of a stock character, she gets the best death scene.

Despite its genre-ness, Life still manages to show its respect for the sacrifice and idealism of the space program, which is rather nice. It is somewhat akin to Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report, but it is more conventionally monster-driven. While it falls short of its ambitions, it is considerably better than it had to be. Frankly, it is kind of impressive Life has ambitions in the first place. It probably doesn’t justify Manhattan ticket prices, but it will seem like a surprisingly good sleeper movie for those who stream it on impulse in a few months’ time. For those who can’t wait, Life opens in wide release today (3/24), including the AMC Empire in New York.

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